Service is spotty at Lowlife, the woodsy, hyperlocavore newcomer from former Mas (farmhouse) partner Hugh Crickmore and Alex Leonard, previously the chef de cuisine at Carlo Mirarchi’s tasting-menu counter Blanca. Servers fumble over dish descriptions, empty wine glasses are collected without the suggestion of a refill and hostess miscommunications run rampant. (On one recent night, after having been told to linger at the bar for a table to be cleared, another hostess plucked our group up with such whiplash speed, we hadn’t even had a moment to unzip our parkas.)
It’s easy to overlook such clumsy high jinks when a complimentary board of Roberta’s pain d’epi sourdough rolls arrives, warm and crackly, with a velvety pat of house-made butter. Or when day-old loaves of that tangy sourdough are transformed with homespun yogurt into the bread sauce that varnishes a soft roulade of guinea hen ($24), sheathed in its own crispy skin.
Leonard’s menu isn’t by any means cohesive—experimental small plates dominate the top half, winding down to mains that comfort more than they confound—but there’s tasty, interesting stuff in the clutter. Borscht ($12) comes deconstructed as a trio of quenelles. Drag the roasted beet puree through the whip of raw cream and plucky pearls of smoked trout roe, a server instructs, but there’s no need to follow orders—any which way you eat it works. And though a robata-charred chicken yakitori (half $32, whole $60) is less obviously progressive, with smoked cabbage and vibrant scallion sauce, it’s a standout.
Good food (and middling service) aside, Lowlife’s biggest challenge is linking Leonard’s tasting-menu inventiveness with its casual drop-in aims. When, or if, that happens, then it can be truly great.